Tag Archives | Left and Right

Conscience of a Conservative

The full original French title of arch-conservative Joseph de Maistre’s 1821 Soirées, often translated as St. Petersburg Dialogues, is Les Soirées de Saint-Pétersbourg; ou, Entretiens sur le Gouvernement Temporel de la Providence.

The full original French title of arch-liberal Gustave de Molinari’s 1849 Soirées, recently translated as Evenings on Saint Lazarus Street, is Les Soirées de la Rue Saint-Lazare: Entretiens sur les Lois Économiques et Défense de la Propriété.

That the similarity in titles is intended as a reply rather than an homage is obvious from the fact that all the hostile references to de Maistre are assigned to the Economist (Molinari’s spokesman in the dialogue), while all the favourable references are assigned to the Conservative (one of the Economist’s two opponents).

The following quotation from de Maistre’s Soirées will give a sense as to why Molinari picked him out as the antithesis of the liberal vision of society that Molinari’s book sets out to defend:

[T]his divine and terrible prerogative of sovereigns: the punishment of the guilty … results in the necessary existence of a man destined to administer the punishments adjudged for crimes by human justice. This man is, in effect, found everywhere, without there being any means of explaining how; for reason cannot discover in human nature any motive capable of explaining this choice of profession. I believe you too accustomed to reflection, gentlemen, not to have thought often about the executioner.

So who is this inexplicable being who, when there are so many pleasant, lucrative, honest and even honourable professions in which he could exercise his strength or dexterity to choose among, has chosen that of torturing and putting to death his own kind? Are this head and this heart made like our own? Do they contain anything that is peculiar and alien to our nature?

For myself, I have no doubt about this. In outward appearance he is made like us; he is born like us. But he is an extraordinary being, and for him to be brought into existence as a member of the human family a particular decree was required, a FIAT of creative power. He is created as a law unto himself. …

Scarcely have the authorities assigned his dwelling, scarcely has he taken possession of it, when other men move their houses elsewhere so they no longer have to see his. … A dismal signal is given. An abject minister of justice knocks on his door to warn him that he is needed. He sets out. He arrives at a public square packed with a pressing and panting crowd. He is thrown a poisoner, a parricide, a blasphemer. He seizes him, stretches him out, ties him to a horizontal cross, and raises his arms. Then there is a horrible silence; there is no sound but the crack of bones breaking under the crossbar and the howls of the victim. He unties him and carries him to a wheel. The broken limbs are bound to the spokes, the head hangs down, the hair stands on end, and the mouth gaping like a furnace occasionally emits a few bloody words begging for death. He has finished; his heart is pounding, but it is with joy. He congratulates himself. He says in his heart, No one can break men on the wheel better than I. He steps down; he holds out his blood-stained hand, and justice throws him from afar a few gold coins, which he carries away through a double row of men drawing back in horror. He sits down to table and eats; then he goes to bed and sleeps. Awakening on the morrow, he thinks of something quite different from what he did the day before. …

Is this a man? Yes. God receives him in his shrines and allows him to pray. He is not a criminal, and yet no tongue would content to say, for example, that he is virtuous, that he is an honest man, that he is admirable, etc. No moral praise seems appropriate for him, since this supposes relationships with human beings, and he has none.

And yet all greatness, all power, all subordination rests on the executioner; he is both the horror and the bond of human association. Remove this incomprehensible agent from the world, and in a moment order gives way to chaos, thrones fall, and society disappears.

Despair Could Never Touch a Morning

The air was cool, and smelled of sage. It had the clarity that comes to southern California only after a Santa Ana wind has blown all haze and history out to sea – air like telescopic glass, so that the snowtopped San Gabriels seemed near enough to touch, though they were forty miles away. The flanks of the blue foothills revealed the etching of every ravine, and beneath the foothills, stretching to the sea, the broad coastal plain seemed nothing but treetops ….

The sun was obscured by a cloud for a moment, then burst out again. Big clouds like tall ships coasted in, setting sail for the mountains and the desert beyond. The ocean was a deep, rich, blue blue, a blue in blue within blue inside of blue, the heart and soul and center of blue. Blinding chips of sunlight bounced on the swelltops. Liquid white light glazed the apricot cliff of Corona del Mar, the needles of its Torrey pines like sprays of dark green. Ironwood color of the sun-drenched cliff. … Behind him Orange County pulsed green and amber, jumping with his heart, glossy, intense, vibrant, awake, alive. His world and the wind pouring through it.

As you might guess (since it’s been the subject of my two most recent “guess the author” posts – here and here), I recently got around, at last, to reading the “Three Californias” trilogy (The Wild Shore, The Gold Coast, and Pacific Edge) by Kim Stanley Robinson, about whose other work I’ve blogged before (see, e.g., here and here). (For Robinson’s own account of the origin and meaning of his trilogy, see this interview.)

The trilogy concerns three possible futures for southern California: a) post-apocalyptic, b) urban sprawl, and c) ecotopia – three timelines linked by one character who occurs in all three (and who seems to have a vague inkling of his other lives, his alternative pasts and possible futures – see The Wild Shore, pp. 214-221, and Pacific Edge, pp. 63 and 181), as well as by some structural and thematic elements (for example, each novel begins with an archeological excavation and ends with an attempt at sabotage). There are echoes of Ursula K. Le Guin and Philip K. Dick (Robinson was a student of one and wrote his dissertation on the other), as well as prefigurations of his own later fiction, but the trilogy is very much its own thing – and, as one would expect from Robinson, thought-provoking and beautifully written.

While Robinson’s three futures represent, in effect, two bad possibilities and one good one, the portrait is not simplistic: the two dystopian novels offer glimmers of hope and spaces of freedom, while the third, utopian novel represents utopia not as a fixed end point but as something that needs to be continually fought for, defended, and extended – which seems to me to be the right way to think about it. (And his utopia is certainly not one in which all the protagonists live happy lives or find their way to happy endings.)

When it comes to the specific content of his utopia, as opposed to his abstract idea of how to think about utopia as such, Robinson’s vision is much more of a mixed bag, from my (or more broadly, any LWMA) point of view. As I’ve said before, Robinson’s economic and political ideals leave him with “one foot in vital, grassroots, quasi-anarchist radicalism” and “the other in dreary, top-down, paternalistic authoritarianism.” (This conflict actually gets lampshaded somewhat – e.g., at pp. 282-285 of Pacific Edge – though without resolution.) But the trilogy is well worth reading despite this.

I particularly want to recommend the trilogy, though, not just to readers in general but specifically to those who know and love California, especially southern California. Anyone for whom the towns and climate and natural landscape of the region are a geography of their own heart will find a special joy in recognising them in their varied incarnations through the three novels.

(There’s a certain irony in the fact that Robinson, who has the good fortune to live in the California of the present, has written a trilogy filled with longing for Californias of the past and possible future, but mostly frustration with the California of the present – which by contrast looks pretty damn good to me, despite its admitted flaws. Yes, I’m homesick!)

I Never Had a Secret Chart

In 1965, Murray Rothbard described socialism (or at least state socialism) as a “confused, middle-of-the road movement” that “tries to achieve Liberal ends,” such as “freedom, reason, mobility, progress, higher living standards for the masses, and an end to theocracy and war,” but does so “by the use of incompatible, Conservative means,” such as “statism, central planning, communitarianism, etc.”

If that’s right, and I think it broadly is, it suggests a somewhat different grid from the usual Nolan Chart:

An incompatibility between means and ends suggests, further, that the two quadrants I’ve marked in grey are unstable. Attempts to implement the program of the traditional left politically end up sliding in practice into the political right (as is evidenced by the general recognition that Kremlin hardliners were appropriately called “conservatives”); that’s why Marxist ideology can be preferable to Nazi ideology, even if there’s not much daylight between Stalin and Hitler. The Marxist vision of universal cooperation and solidarity is more congenial than the Nazi vision of superior races crushing inferior ones; but implementing the former vision through the centralised, authoritarian state tends to yield something looking more like the latter vision.

Similarly, right-libertarian attempts to uphold conservative, authoritarian goals (such as heteropatriarchy, white privilege, closed borders, hierarchical workplaces, the capitalist wage system, etc.) via free-market means are doomed to fail for the same reasons. Hence we see the breakdown of libertarian-conservative “fusionism,” the transformation of right-libertarians into alt-righters, etc. At the end of the day, as William Gillis says, “everything is philosophically unstable besides fascism and anarchism.”

Smashing Fences and Fascists

[cross-posted at BHL and POT]

I’m excited to announce the publication of two new anthologies from C4SS (the Center for a Stateless Society): The Anatomy of Escape: A Defense of the Commons (357 pp.; buy at C4SS [$12 plus shipping] or buy at Amazon) and Fighting Fascism: Anti-fascism, Free Speech and Political Violence (479 pp.; buy at C4SS [$14 plus shipping] or buy at Amazon).

The Anatomy of Escape explores the role of common property in a market anarchist system, while Fighting Fascism features debates over the ethical, political, and strategic/tactical considerations that should inform resistance to fascist movements. (Both books include contributions by me – although my piece in the fascism volume is a bit of an outlier, as it concerns fascism in a somewhat different sense of the term from the one addressed in most of the other pieces.)

From the introduction to The Anatomy of Escape: A Defense of the Commons:

Many market anarchists – especially, though not exclusively, those associated with market anarchism’s “right” wing – tend to envision a fully free market as one in which all resources are privately owned. The essays in this book offer a different perspective: that a stateless free-market society can and should include, alongside private property, a robust role for public property – not, of course, in the sense of governmental property, but rather in the sense of property that is owned by the general community rather than by specific individuals or formally organized groups.

From the introduction to Fighting Fascism: Anti-fascism, Free Speech and Political Violence:

Anarchists are, by definition, anti-fascist. They oppose all forms of fascism just as they oppose all forms of statism, domination, and oppression. What’s left to be settled, however, is what our anti-fascist commitment entails in practice. What should our theoretical debates surrounding the nature and danger of fascist ideas imply for our practical strategies for creating the new, anti-fascist world in the shell of the old, fascist one?

More specifically, we need to understand just what fascism is and how it spreads. We need to know why fascism has any appeal at all and how to stem that appeal. We need to see how concepts like freedom of speech figure into anarchist praxis. We need to discuss what free speech is. We need to explore what constitutes mere speech and assembly and what constitutes intentionality and violence. We need to differentiate between self-defense and aggression. We need to seriously interrogate the morality and efficacy of different kinds of political violence. Most importantly, we need internally consistent ethical and strategic insights into replacing fascist ideas with anarchist ones. Failing to clarify these issues could cost us, not only our souls, but any fighting chance for anarchy left in this fragile world.

You can view the tables of contents at the links above.

And for more LWMA (left-wing market anarchist) books and other swag, check out the C4SS Store.

Forthcoming Anthology on Dialectical Libertarianism

[cross-posted (with slight variations depending on audience) at C4SS, BHL, and POT]

Several C4SS people (Jason Lee Byas, Kevin Carson, Gary Chartier, Billy Christmas, Nathan Goodman, and your humble correspondent) are among the contributors to a forthcoming anthology, Dialectics of Liberty: Exploring the Context of Human Freedom, edited by Chris Matthew Sciabarra, Roger Bissell, and Edward Younkins.

Not the actual cover

Not the actual cover

Other contributors, from a variety of libertarian traditions, include Robert Campbell, Troy Camplin, Douglas Den Uyl, Robert Higgs, Steven Horwitz, Stephan Kinsella, Deirdre McCloskey, David Prychitko, Douglas Rasmussen, John Welsh, and the editors themselves (Sciabarra, Bissell, and Younkins).

In Sciabarra’s words: “These essays explore ways that liberty can be better defended using a dialectical approach, a mode of analysis that grasps the full context of philosophical, cultural, and social factors requisite to the sustenance of human freedom.” Sciabarra notes that while “some of the authors associated with the volume may very well not associate themselves with the views of other authors herein represented,” a “context-sensitive dialectical approach” is “living research program” that “will necessarily generate a variety of perspectives, united only in their ideological commitment to freedom and their methodological commitment to a dialectical sensibility.”

Sciabarra has devoted his career to exploring such an approach, most notably in his “Dialectics and Liberty” trilogy Marx, Hayek, and Utopia; Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical; and Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism.

Check out Sciabarra’s announcement of the Dialectics of Liberty anthology here, and the abstracts of chapters here.

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